Jan. 11--NORTHRIDGE -- The fire chief woke with a start before dawn on Jan. 17, 1994, just like any other Angeleno tossed from his bed by the 6.7-magnitude Northridge earthquake.
But Battalion Chief Larry Schneider, wedged on the floor between his cot and the wall at the new Fire Station 28 in Porter Ranch, kept his cool. Like dozens of shaken firefighters under his command, he was ready to respond to widespread havoc.
To overcome the initial shock. To emerge from the rubble of once-tidy firehouses. To quickly respond to the eerie chaos. Without power. Without fully working radios. And without enough water or men to quell the blanket of fires bursting across the San Fernando Valley.
"Everything failed," recalled Schneider, 86, of Torrance, who retired from the Los Angeles Fire Department six years ago after 63 years of firefighting experience. "I never saw anything like it.
"When I looked over the Valley, it was dark, without power. And dust was rising, almost like a fog. And there were transformers shorting and exploding across the Valley. Then we started seeing the fires, red glows in the sky. To the east of us, the whole sky was red."
The Northridge earthquake rocked the Los Angeles region at 4:31 a.m. with the most violent ground motion ever recorded under any city in North America, according to geologists, and ultimately the most expensive at $20 billion. Freeways crumpled. Homes, storefronts and shopping malls collapsed. Hospitals stood crippled. Trains derailed, spewing toxic chemicals.
Nearly 800 fires were reported across Los Angeles. And those were just the ones called in.
As the dust settled, 57 residents lay dead, while more than 9,000 lay trapped or injured in the debris.
All that Battalion 15 Chief Schneider knew was that he and 50 firefighters on duty at nine fire stations from Canoga Park to Northridge would swing into earthquake emergency mode.
That meant leaving their stations, radioing in their status and then responding to the most critical emergencies while canvassing each and every neighborhood, street by street.
But the same quake that just damaged some 58,000 homes and businesses had also turned firehouses upside down -- cutting power, jamming doors and leaving fire trucks temporarily trapped inside.
At Fire Station 70 in Reseda, the jolt was so violent that each firefighter "bunked out" of their beds, just before a hail of bricks rained down on their mattresses. Walls cracked, plaster fell and floors buckled, while firefighters saw two engines and a ladder truck "hop" across the floor.
At Fire Station 8 in Northridge, the shock was so severe a cast-iron six-burner Wolf stove was flip-flopped, its gas line broken, in the middle of the kitchen.
At each station, darkness prevailed amid powerful aftershocks as firefighters struggled to open fire engine doors by hand, while some stations seemed on the verge of collapse.
"It was the most violent ever recorded in history, that's why it was so sharp," said Schneider of the quake that is the strongest ground motion ever recorded. "It literally knocked people down."
The challenge for L.A. firefighters was to stymie a post-earthquake inferno like those that had once obliterated San Francisco and Tokyo, and to identify which fallen buildings contained trapped residents.
For Schneider, who had lived through the 1933 Long Beach, 1941 Torrance-Gardena and 1971 Sylmar quakes, it meant sending what few firefighters he had to where they might save the most lives. And to battle blazes without water pressure because of busted mains.
On Balboa Boulevard, a 20-inch gas feeder main exploded, spewing flames 100 feet into the air atop a geyser shot from a blown 56-inch water main. "A guy in a pickup truck drove in the hole igniting the gas," he said. "There was so much heat, it ignited five houses on either side."
If a recently installed oil line beneath Balboa had ruptured, the chief worried it could have launched a downhill river of burning, flaming crude past two hospitals, two medical buildings and into a supermarket parking lot across from Fire Station 87. It didn't.